Don’t Study the Basics, Learn By “Grazing”


If you really want to learn something, don’t worry about learning the basics first. Just go about gathering knowledge wherever you find it, doing things you like to do. Instead of trying to build a house of knowledge, one brick at a time, starting from the foundation, try to learn by “grazing”, following whatever attracts your interest. You will find that apparently aimless “grazing” will take you over increasingly familiar ground, and your grasp of the subject will naturally deepen.

At school we are taught that we need to learn things in a certain order, according to the curriculum, so that we can pass our tests. Learning is divided up into short spurts of activity, with the class subject changing every 30-40 minutes. The teacher decides what we are going to learn and at what pace. We are usually dissuaded from going ahead of the teacher to  pursue things that interest us. We don’t have the luxury of staying with a subject of interest for a whole morning, let alone weeks at a time.

Not only does this structured approach often destroy the pleasure of discovery and learning that so many school kids start with, but it conditions many people, throughout their lives, to view learning as a lineal process, rather than the disorderly creative meandering journey  that it is.

If you are an adult learner, you may be better off abandoning these habits and learning to “graze”. Let’s look at language learning as but one example.

1. The basic rules and structures of a language are often hard to grasp, unless you already have some background.

You need a lot of exposure to the language, aimed only at understanding and experiencing the language, in order that these basic rules can start to make sense. You need some points of reference for these explanations and rules to be meaningful. As the Sufi proverb says, “ you can only learn what you already know.”

2. The basic rules are inherently boring and hard to remember.

The brain has an easier time getting used to patterns, through frequent exposure in different settings, rather than remembering isolated facts and rules. Being confronted with tables of verb tenses, or complicated rules, or lists of words, can often discourage us, because we find them so difficult to remember, despite repeated efforts to do so.

3. “Grazing” , just reading and listening to things of interest, is inherently more satisfying for your brain, than cramming grammar rules.

According to neuroscience, the brain needs novelty and repetition in order to learn. “Grazing”, or covering a variety of language content, at varying levels of difficulty, using different sources, is an ideal way to stimulate the brain with new experiences, and yet go over the same ground many times. You explore new areas, and then listen and read up in areas that you have already covered. This kind of activity gives your brain novelty and repetition. As you understand more and more of the new language, you have a feeling of achievement. This is most gratifying, unlike the feeling of frustration that you get from yet another vain attempt to memorize grammar rules.

4. The Internet is the ideal “grazing” ground. You can find material at all levels of difficulty, in a variety of languages, on the Internet.

This ranges from, podcasts for beginners, blogs and language teaching websites, to more advanced material from newspapers, radio stations and TV stations. There are online dictionaries, grammar summaries, and dedicated language learning communities to help you. Just google and you will find them.

5.Your “grazing” can include the occasional review of the basics, when you feel like doing so or are curious to know something.

“Grazing” the basics, whether by occasionally browsing through simple grammar books, or looking up certain grammar rules via google, can be a useful activity. You will find that it becomes more and more useful, as you acquire a sense for the language through your main “grazing” activity with content of interest.

* * *

To become an effective life long learner, it may be necessary to throw off some of the habits acquired as school kids in the classroom.

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16 thoughts on “Don’t Study the Basics, Learn By “Grazing””

  1. Hi Steve,

    Thanks for sharing informative blog.

    In todays professional world, one has to keep himself abreast with many subjects. During day to day work, we come acrosss many concepts in varied subjects like finance, legal, regulatory and technology.

    I am a medical professional but working in technology. Many times I don’t understand technical or compliance jargon but I need to fullfill requirement.

    What you have said “grazing” is exactly what I do when I come across these new topics or technical concepts.

    We really don’t need to be a through expert in domain but expected to know it well so that we can deliver solution to client.

    Yes ! I do use lots of online dictionaries, grammar summaries, and dedicated language learning communities. I am now completely dependent on them.

    Any tips on grazing will be very useful for us.

    Dr. Ankush

  2. Steve, thank you for such a great article! Your words reached me on many levels. I too am fascinated by many thing and through seeking information on the web, I’ve learned much about things that interest me, seemingly effortlessly, via the method you’ve described above. I love the way you have contrasted this organic learning style with the constraints of the school method.

    I’m also learning Arabic in Egypt, so your example was particularly poignant, and has given me some encouragement. Thanks again :)

  3. Great Article. It explains why i could learn web designing without going through the regular channel of learning the basics. Learning as you go is interesting and much simpler and less time consuming.

  4. More than 100% correct.

    Starting from basics may be good, if you have a qualified teacher or a knowldgeble person or you are in school! But in real life it may not work that way, and needs may dictate that you learn new things inspite of these shortcomings. Available time vs the need may not go together. Hence during those times you need to learn by grasping.

    Should you get genuinely interested in that new subject, even after your need has been met, my advice will be, somwhow learn the basics. Then you can become a teacher latter to someone else!

    Sharing knowledge is always enjoyable, as these writers are doing here!

  5. I use a flipped classroom model with my service delivery to tertiary students. They attend their lectures and tutes, I then get them doing stuff so that the basics naturally arise to be linked to a relevant activity or question.

    Statistics is a subject where the basics enable understanding of most of the material, concepts at more complicated levels rely on an understanding of the basics. Lack of the basics is why I have post-grads undertaking PhDs and Masters etc unable to write critical literature reviews, design research proposals or to effectivly gather, analyse and communicate data in their particular fields.

    Psych students read an assortment of peer-reveiwed journal articles, texts and books~ those basics are not, that I have seen with my clients in 7 years, geling just by grazing.

    Like most things, it’s the middle meeting IMO. Grazing, with opportunities to activly engage in projects that enable the basics to be linked to a relevant activity.

    I encourage the students to come up with activities, aids relevance. Especially when stats can be linked to daily activities and thier personal goals in psychology.

  6. Hi Steve,

    Great post and I need to acknowledge you for your insight that the world’s knlowledge storage, its archival and retreival process that the Intermet signifies, aligns perfectly with the “grazing ” process.

    I would further add my tuppence to say that learning remains a function of our passion and dreams of the moment. So it is achieved by not only the above grazing process but the sub-conscious kicking in to create patterns and visuals.


    Shakti Ghosal

    1. Patterns, that is what the brain looks for, and eventually identifies, in order to take the uncertainty out of dealing with new experience. The process of recognizing patterns and putting labels on things takes time. The theoretical explanations can help, but massive experience, through observation, and practice, and even through reading and listening, are the essentials of learning, in my experience. This is especially true in learning languages.

  7. great article. The internet has been a powerful tool for me for “grazing”. Ive been able to teach myself everything ive put my mind & heart to. I try to teach others that if you know what you’re looking for online, you could find it & learn. Ive read several books, blogs, & watched hundreds of videos to learn & practice.

  8. I love that you use language acquisition as an example, because it’s such a good one.

    I think ultimately, if you graze enough, your ‘building of knowledge’ comes together anyhow, because if you’re interested in something you will eventually gain enough knowledge through ‘grazing’ that you will have built that foundation….just not in the order that you’d expect.

    I wouldn’t say ‘don’t study the basics though’. The basics are important.
    Rather I’d say, don’t be obsessed with understanding the basics perfectly before you go off in search of more intricate aspects of your interest.

  9. Interesting perspective. I wish that we could use this method in school instead of hammering in a message that no student cares about.
    Our kids could learn so much more and excel in life if we let them learn about things they are really interested in and if we let them learn it their way.

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